by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
The internet is growing uncontrollably. Ultra-fast information transfer is happening across this world via a network of communication satellites.
Nearly everything has changed with the onset of internet, and over the past years we’ve seen vast improvements in technology, communication and virtual entertainment. All thanks to the internet.
The internet has also been pivotal in introducing improvements for education purposes; one can access online courses, supplemental information for a subject of their choice, and expert health and nutrition advice. The internet has opened up a substantial amount of knowledge to a wide audience around the globe.
But it can also be a minefield…
The era of information failure
Einstein said: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”
Information failure can happen when the participants don’t have perfect knowledge, or when one set of participants know more than the others causing information asymmetry.
An information failure is often detrimental; causing confusion and uncertainty. It can affect a lot of subject areas, particularly health and nutrition.
According to recent reports:
- 80% of the population from developed countries (like the UK, the US, Germany, Australia, Japan, Canada, France, etc.) use the internet.
- 70% to 80% of us use the internet to search for health information online (Tonksaker, 2014 , HINTS, Pew Internet and the European Commission).
These are really staggering stats.
But they come at a high price: we now have an increased risk of damage caused by information failure. For all we know, there could be millions of bloggers spreading wrong advice about health and nutrition… putting their followers’ health at risk.
The harm of misinformation
With so many self-declared “evidence-based” websites floating around, what (and who) should you believe – or not?
How do you know you are reading quality-verified information? Who can you trust for accurate data suited to your needs? Who filters the junk from the science?
These are a few questions you should be asking yourself constantly.
I personally have a very rigorous vetting process and spend a lot of time and resources to access, validate, and distil top-quality material.
The first step in this process is to identify whether I’m reading bad science or not. And I would like to share with you some of the red-flags I normally watch out for.
Here is a list of four common slip-ups made by health blogs, even when they proclaim to be “science-based”:
1. They oversimplify information.
Our world is full of big and unstructured data.
However, bigger doesn’t always mean better. The value of data is determined by the quality of its analysis.
While simplification of the conclusion is necessary to target a wider audience, a balance must be maintained so as not to distort it.
Here’s one simple example of causal oversimplification:
“When the team won the last game, the coach said his team had pizza before the game… surely the team won because of the pizza they had, therefore one must have pizza before the game to win the game”.
Can you see the weird logic?
Two unrelated topics have been linked and used as evidence to back up a made-up conclusion.
Many health bloggers intentionally link unrelated data to mislead their audience, giving them a false sense of satisfaction.
Now, have a look at the image to the left.
Two is a number. One is a number. Therefore, two equals one.
Quite convincing, isn’t it?
That’s the oversimplification formula that many health bloggers and journalists use…
It’s called “non-sequitur”. A kind of fabricated logic you should always watch out for!
Let me give you another example.
In news, the Daily Mail claimed that “Eating fruit could make you MORE hungry because the sugar in it triggers cravings”.
But the cited study didn’t involve fruits at all. Then how did the journalist conclude that?
Easy. By using the oversimplification formula! Somewhere along the following:
- A fructose drink increased cravings (study).
- Fruits contain fructose (common knowledge).
- Therefore, fruits increase cravings (Daily Mail).
Can this be used as evidence that eating fruit makes you hungrier? No.
This information has been pulled out of context.
And context matters! In this case, drinking fructose is very different from eating whole fruits, where the fibre slows down the release of fructose into the bloodstream. Fruits also have a high water content and take longer to digest, so fructose is not instantly absorbed.
Now that you are aware of the “causal oversimplification” tactic, see if you can spot it in the blogs you follow (and please let us know when you do!).
2. They “spin” the findings.
Most health blogs miss out on the critical findings of a study.
They opportunistically cherry-pick a few words from a study abstract to support an argument, without ever reading the full study.
Recycling words from a study abstract and using that as “evidence” carries several problems.
Particularly the problem of “spinning”.
It’s been reported that 41% of clinical-study abstracts are distorted by the scientists themselves with an attractive “spin” to make the key findings news-worthy.
What happens then?
These “spinned” abstracts are spread by health bloggers and journalists who, in general, don’t bother to read the original full study.
For this reason, I never “buy into” an abstract. Unless I read, absorb, and understand the full scientific paper back to back, I won’t put it forward or even show it to you.
The point is that you must be vigilant about the way some health websites are trying to convince you, often by randomly plastering links to PubMed abstracts on a page in order to create an illusion of “evidence”, without fully understanding:
- the study type,
- the research methods,
- the context in which it was carried out,
- why it might contradict previous findings, and
- whether it was a one-hit-wonder with irreproducible results.
This shows how anyone can be misled by bloggers who skip crucial information and pick isolated conclusions from the scientific literature, concealing the full picture.
Sadly, health myths are born this way — many of which we debunk in our Science Reports!
3. They disseminate junk science.
Vetting a study for scientific integrity before citing it is crucial. Why?
Because sometimes science can be falsified by the medics and scientists themselves.
I know, that’s a shocker.
It is very important to find out if the results can be reproduced, if it was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and how many test subjects were used.
Notably, a 1998 study by surgeon Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues is believed to be responsible for the modern anti-vaccine movement.
They observed that 8 of the 12 children developed their first symptoms of autism shortly after they received the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine.
This correlation was weak and although other scientists denounced this claim, several media outlets issued dramatic headlines linking MMR to autism.
Numerous follow-up studies failed to replicate this study and couldn’t find evidence linking vaccines to autism.
Furthermore, in 2004, journalist Brian Deer in his report revealed that Wakefield had been hired by a lawyer to find evidence against the vaccine to support a lawsuit and had falsified the data in the 1998 study.
This study was retracted in 2010 and Wakefield was stripped off his medical licenses.
Despite the scandal, some bloggers keep citing the retracted study!
More recently, a German journalist fabricated a scientific study to prove how easy it is to fool the media with junk science.
He used the alias ‘Johannes Bohannon’, but his name is John. He recruited real subjects, performed a real experiment, and published his findings in a real scientific journal called the International Archives of Medicine, which used to be run by BioMedCentral.
But the truth is that he somewhat “manipulated” the study data to make us believe that eating chocolate daily accelerates weight loss.
In his fascinating article, John reveals how he duped millions with his fake chocolate findings.
So, how do you know if the data in a study has been manipulated or not?
Well, that’s why we are here: the team and I vet studies for scientific integrity and ensure that everything we teach you in our Science Reports and in our courses is based on a proper interpretation of the science.
4. They create a psychological nocebo effect.
Several health websites exert the power of the ‘nocebo effect’ upon their readers’ minds.
In a prank gone horribly wrong, a group of medical students picked on a much-disliked assistant and caught him unaware. They blindfolded him and bowed his head onto the chopping block; they announced that they would decapitate him, and dropped a wet cloth on his neck. Convinced that it was a steel blade, the man died on the spot.
This example has been cited in Dr Benson’s work in 1997 and just goes on to show our brain power and how dangerous these beliefs can be.
Many health sites terrorise their readers with pretty scary headlines and give out selective information about a study, or don’t talk about the biological evidence.
This increases the scientific gap and can lead to the creation of dangerous beliefs in your head.
Believing that a certain food will harm you can be as powerful (if not more) than the negative effects of the food itself. We explain how this can happen in our Science Report Gluten: A psychological nocebo?
Sometimes you may be better off by NOT allowing this kind of information to play with your mind, even if subconsciously.
So many health bloggers underestimate their readers’ intelligence.
H.L. Mencken, a journalist and a scholar of American English, stated:
“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby”.
Looking at today’s ‘blogsphere’, Mencken’s opinion might be more relevant than ever!
Although knowledge can empower us, I’m worried about the quality and quantity of information out there, how people use it, and how it can affect them.
More harm can be done by accessing false or misrepresented information, and using such information to make a decision.
Online stories are pulled out of context, sensationalised, or fabricated… just to get your attention.
You must be critical of popular blogs, particularly when you identify any of the red-flags we discussed:
- Are they using the oversimplification formula to fabricate a false logic?
- Could what you read be a complete misinterpretation of the scientific literature?
- Are they using junk studies, or taking partial information from abstracts, without reading and validating the full study?
- Are they applying scare-tactics and planting an unnecessary nocebo effect in your mind?
If you spotted any of the above in the blogs that you follow, please tell us in the comments below — the general public has the right to know!
And if you know someone who might benefit from these tips, feel free to share (they’ll thank you for it).